^ official roll call vote on yesterdays’ “TransBillMA,” which adds gender identity to the list of public accommodations protected classes

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Of all the 50 states, Massachusetts, so most of us feel, ought to be the first in civil rights matters. Yesterday, when the House voted 116 to 36 to pass the Transgender Public Accommodations bill before it, we became the 19th state — not the first — to do so.

We have done better in the past. In 2003 we were the first state to declare same sex marriage constitutional. In 1780 we were the first state to abolish slavery. We were the first state in which municipalities outlawed segregation of schools by race. We led the Abolitionist cause the eventually fought slavery to its end. But we were not the first state to grant women voting rights : Wyoming beat us by many years. Our civil rights record is uneven.

Because we have so often led the nation in civil rights — because we early embraced the Republican party, which was created for the very purpose involved — we have acquired a reputation which our actual politics belie. Yesterday’s vote came only after months of delay and maneuver, indeed after its public accommodations provisions had been cut out of our state’s 2011 law adding gender identity to the class of civil rights protections. Why was this ? The answer is  at hand, .though it embarrasses to face it.

If we are the iconic civil rights state, we are equally the iconic state of social hysterias. Anyone who grew up in Salem., as I did, knows only too well the hysteria of 1692 — the date alone tells all — in which hundreds of ordinary people were accused of witchcraft, condemned on proof-less evidence, and imprisoned. Twenty were hanged, one man pressed to death. Another died in Salem jail. The thing ended only when Governor Phelps, supported by big-city merchants, ordered it ended. (Big city merchants ? Yes, even then, business progressivism fought battles with street scapegoaters.) Not long after, those who did the accusing began apologizing; so did one of the judges, Samuel Sewall.

260 years later, as I grew up in Salem, people with relatives on the witch side still were not at ease with people whose ancestors had done the accusing. Of course, by then, Nathaniel Hawthorne had written The Scarlet Letter, and other stories in which rush to judgement and delusional hysterias were the antagonist. And we had all read Hawthorne many times. Despite that, we — many of us — were swept up AGAIN, in the 1980s, by the day care child abuse hysteria, which in Massachusetts led to the trial, conviction, and imprisonment — on testimony by children (as in the witchcraft trials !) induced and suggested, of three Amiraults, one of whom died in prison before her son and daughter were set free, barely.

Those of us who thought Massachusetts people had learned — twice — not to succumb to hysterical fears erected upon nothing watched stupefied as hundreds of screaming protestors stormed the State House yesterday to protest — to stop — the “TransBillMA.” as it has been hash-tagged. What was the hysteria this time ? That if transgender people are allowed to use the bathroom of their choice, pedophiles will have license to prey upon children “in a private vulnerable moment,” as some wrote in facebook posts. It was impossible to respond that pedophiles preying upon children has always been illegal; that police chiefs from all across the state say there is no substance to fear of transgender people; that if there is any fear involved, it is for assaults upon transgender people, not by them.

It was so impossible that if you did talk back, the screams grew louder, the accusations more unhinged. Exactly as happened in 1692.

I won’t go into the gist of the facebook comments, many of which brazenly, bluntly deny transgender people their existence or which presume to tell transgender people who they are, as if anyone has such a right. They don’t.

Thus the House voted as it did. 8 of 32 voting Republicans supported the bill, 108 of 120 voting Democrats. (The roll call vote is pictured above for those who want to know how their representative voted.)

The House bill now goes to a Joint Conference with the Senate, which voted 33 to 4 to pass a different version of the same bill. At the Conference, the differences will be settled, after which the final bill goes to Governor Baker, who supports and will sign the House version or something like it.

The vote is so overwhelming that you wonder why it took so long to get it done. But anyone who saw the mobs of feral screamers, or who read the vulgar comments on facebook, had to shudder at what our Representatives’ phone messages must have been like these past several months. Even though every poll shows Massachusetts voters supporting the “TransBillMA” by two to one, it took courage, and resolve, to bring it forward and vote it Yes. We are Massachusetts : not at all the state first in civil rights but something more accursed, a state with an unsure streak deep within us, a readiness to credit fears, rumors, untruths; a society in which many people can say, with0ut blushing, that “a small minority should never dictate to the whole” even though we know damn well that — as one facebook respondent pointed out,  the Pledge of Allegiance’s words “with liberty and justice for ALL” means FOR ALL

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere


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